By Gary Koehler
With all due respect to hard-charging, never-miss-a-mark retrievers, performance in the field isn't the only measure of a quality duck dog. Deportment counts, too. How your retriever minds you, reacts to other people, and behaves around other dogs is a good measure of his socialization.
Most of your retriever's days are spent not in a duck blind or goose pit but at home. Even if your dog hunts every day of waterfowl season, he still spends far more time around the house than in the marsh. And let's face it, nobody wants to live with an out-of-control canine.
Having hunted waterfowl from coast to coast in just about every imaginable setting, I have been introduced to any number of retrievers. The vast majority were well-behaved and a pleasure to be around. Some of my personal favorites were the snugglers, who could not seem to get close enough to me while dodging rain, snow, or bow spray (during early-morning boat rides). The ear lickers were a little bit too much. But all these dogs seemed to have one thing in common: they were comfortable sharing a familiar place with a stranger. Their owners had undoubtedly done something right.
Undesirable behavior can assume many forms. There are the growlers, barkers, whiners, diggers, and chewers, to name just a few of the most common types of canine offenders. Some dogs may be guilty of all these transgressions; others perhaps of just one. Dogs misbehave for a variety of reasons that are not always readily apparent to their owners. The gene pool is at least partially filled with murky water these days. Check out a pup's sire and dam in person whenever possible. Keep in mind, however, that sound parentage does not necessarily guarantee ideal offspring.
The truth of the matter is that you have to consider each dog as an individual. Even pups from the same litter will have different personalities, regardless of the breed you select. To develop a well-adjusted retriever, your goal should be to promote confidence, inquisitiveness, enthusiasm, and obedience. Approach this project correctly from the start and you will avoid many troublesome issues later on.
While it is highly unlikely that any single set of exercises will ensure a well-mannered retriever, there are a number of important steps you can take with a puppy that will encourage good behavior. Bonding with the dog through play is a positive start. Be sure to give your pup plenty of attention. Assume a leadership role from day one and keep the games fun for all involved.
Pups that become habitual barkers, diggers, and chewers are probably not getting enough exercise. In short, they are acting out due to boredom. Give your dog an outlet to burn off energy. This will require much more than a two-minute walk to the corner and back. Let the dog run or swim. Expose him to the sights, sounds, and smells of woods, open fields, and water. There's no better learning environment for a young retriever than the outdoors.
Biters and growlers are likely insecure, or afraid of something unfamiliar. This may include strangers and other dogs. Allow your pup to interact with people as often as possible. While on your walks with the dog, let your neighbors pet him if they choose to do so. Visit a local park and allow the pup to interact with friendly dogs and people. Socialization serves to alleviate distrust of strangers. Fear brings out the worst in most animals. A pup that becomes comfortable in the company of new faces-human or canine-will not be ill at ease when placed in unfamiliar social situations.
Much of a dog's personality evolves from what he has learned. Be patient. Offer encouragement whenever an opportunity presents itself. Pups yearn for human approval. Positive reinforcement gives the dog a sense of accomplishment and builds confidence. Dogs embrace stability and consistency, not drama.
Ancient Breeds Research suggests that distinct dog breeds first arose as early as 5,000 years ago.